2011 Snow Bike Review
It has been two years since we had the first opportunity to test snow bikes. At the time it was such a fantastic experience that I just had to tell everyone I knew about this emerging sport. I was not alone in that sentiment. Mike Metzger and Derrick Mahoney were so impressed from that first trip to McCall, Idaho that they both went out and bought kits for themselves. Yet even with all that enthusiasm, the sport is only showing slow signs of growth.
In many ways it is a sport without a home. It is neither a snowmobile nor a motorcycle, but a combination of each. Many would argue that it is the best of each. As a motorcycle converted to accept a ski on the front and track on the back, it opens up so many new ways to exploit the snow.
While the sport is not exactly a household word yet, that does not mean that nothing has been going on. In fact, there has been a real spurt of development and attention given to the design of these machines. We were recently invited back to Idaho to attend the second snowbike race held in the town of McCall. As part of the trip I spent two days riding around the local mountains and got to test some of the newest bike designs.
It was our friends at 2moto that originally turned me on to the sport. While the 2moto Radix kit was by no means the first type of snow conversion for a motorcycle, is was probably the first one to feature a sophisticated engineering concept and design.
The basic frame and track structure replace the existing swingarm of the bike. The main subframe is suspended by an Ohlins shock that takes the place of the stocker. Then the track itself rides on a secondary shock that allows it work independently of the subframe.
Unique to the 2moto is the arced paddle track that is higher in the center. This allows it to have a consistent feel as it rolls side to side. The track is driven at the rear by a long chain; this is coupled via a jack shaft to a shorter chain section that links to the countershaft. The airbox is removed and replaced by a cylindrical filter and Outerwear cover. This helps to keep the intake free of snow.
Up front steering is handled via a snowmobile style ski. The ski mounts directly to the front fork using the front brake caliper mounting holes. Additionally the ski assembly is braced by a pin that rides under the right hand fork knuckle.
The Simmons Flexi-ski uses carbides that run along each edge to help the ski track. There are also different widths available to accommodate different conditions. The 11” wide powder ski is ideal for tracking through deeper snow as it allows the ski to stay on top of the snow better. Extra mounting holes allow the ski to be moved forward or back to customize the handling. This is a way of moving the “trail” forward or back.
As a new comer to the market, Sandpoint, Idaho manufacturer Timbersled has advanced snow bike technology in a slightly different direction. With a product dubbed the “Mountain Horse”, it would not be too difficult to guess where this snowbike excels.
While the Mountain Horse technology looks similar at a glance, the concept and design are considerably different from the Radix. Timbersled started by using the basic platform of a snowmobile and then adapting it to motorcycle use. The most obvious feature is the longer track, again similar to those on mountain sleds.
Next comes the suspension. Where the 2moto allows the subframe to move similar to a swingarm, the Timbersled is fixed. A rod replaces the shock to help brace the track. Instead, the track itself is suspended by two separate shocks. This system provides a claimed 13” of travel.
Probably the single most unique element of the track system is the 20 degree incline at the front of the track that gives a softer angle of approach, allowing the track to naturally tend to climb on top of the snow.
The front ski is nearly identical to that of the 2moto. It does mount in a different manner. Instead of having just one mounting point on the left fork, this uses clamps that attach around the bottom of each fork slider. This gives the ski a more solid mounting platform.
One of the more unusual features is the right hand rear brake. The rear disc brake is mounted on the front of the track assembly. Due to the basic configuration, it will not accommodate the stock motorcycle rear master cylinder. Therefore it uses an aftermarket Wilwood brake system that mounts on the right side of the handlebar, just like a typical front brake.
The rear tunnel provides a large flat area for mounting accessories such as a gas can. It also doubles as a grab handle for lifting the rear track up should it ever become stuck in the snow. I never got stuck, so I never got the chance to try that aspect.
The track is driven to the front instead of the rear so there is considerably less chain involved. The simple transfer case houses the sprocket and chains. An idler sprocket is used to adjust tension.
The SnoXcycle “Extreme” is a completely different animal. Honestly it almost looks like a toy when parked beside the other more sophisticated brands. But looks can be deceiving, as we will see in the ride report.
The SnoX is highlighted by the fact that it is such a simple and intuitive design. Unlike the others it retains the motorcycle’s stock swingarm, shock, drive chain and rear brake system.
A large toothed drive wheel slides in to replace the stock motorcycle wheel. The hub is configured to handle both a rear disc and sprocket. The aluminum track system stretches back to the rear rollers, around which a much narrower track rides.
Like the rest, the front ski is supplied by Simmons. The attachment is via struts. What is really unique here are the modifications that have been made to the underside of the ski. Where the standard ski of the other brands uses carbides down each side, the SnoX had added a flexible carbide runner down the middle of the ski. This dramatically changes the way the ski handles on hard pack surfaces. It can run on the one protruding center carbide, providing a huge improvement in hard surface riding. The outer carbide runners have been modified into an” L” shape to give greater bite when leaned over.
It had been two years since my last snowbike ride. I wanted to take it easy at first so I could get back in the swing of things. The idea was that we were going to start on an easy route. That plan lasted about 30 seconds, as one of the riders in the group, eager to show his skills, blasted straight up the side of the mountain, not to be outdone, the rest of us followed along. Amazingly I instantly climbed a couple of sections that were far more difficult than anything I had tackled previously.
Of course it was not long before I did get stuck in the soft snow. But this sort of demonstrates one of the great aspects of snowbike riding. While it is possible to get stuck, the chances of doing something to get hurt are very small. Typically you just fall off into the snow.
I continually find it difficult to describe to motorcyclists how liberating the snowbike is to ride. It is something like a cross between riding sand dunes and a Jetski. Once out into the virgin snow, you can literally ride anywhere. Open fields or lake beds are great areas for carving incredible turns and hill climbs provide endless entertainment. Personally I just like riding off through the trees best. I love the sense of trekking from one area to the next without any specific trail to follow. There is nothing like laying down the first tracks in some fresh snow.
Even trying a particularly daunting hill climb is not a big deal. Getting stuck merely requires pulling the ski downhill and getting back on, that is as long as you are careful not to bury the track in the snow. Now there are many other aspects of back country snow travel that provide their own dangers.
Our test rider David Kamo found this out when he rode over a seemingly innocent looking hole. Flowing water under the snow had melted everything away, yet it left only a tiny hole on the surface. As he rode over, the entire base collapsed, swallowing him and the bike. He found himself down nearly ten feet once the bike stopped.
David needed a little assistance to climb out; fortunately there were other riders there to lend a hand. It took nearly an hour of digging and five of us to finally lift his Husky back to the surface.
Testing the different models
2moto: I wanted to get myself reacquainted with the Radix, so it was what I chose to ride first. The test bike was a Suzuki RMZ450. In general the bikes of choice for conversions are those with fuel injection. This helps compensate for the vast altitude changes that come with riding in the mountains. For some reason motocrossers seem to work best for most conversions. The stock power and suspension settings tend to be just about right.
The 2moto excels at tackling the widest range of surfaces, from powder to hard pack. The track and suspension design let it cross over between different conditions pretty good. The curved track profile allows it makes a smaller foot print on hard snow and therefore turn easier. Thanks to the shorter overall length, the suspension handles bumps and rolling whoops pretty good. It is a very smooth ride.
Neither the 2moto nor the Timbersled are particularly good on groomed surfaces. The ski wants to wander. Basically the two carbide runners are constantly battling with each other, one wants to go left while the other goes right. The key is to ride on one edge or the other. In general the 2moto handles this best and traveling along an established track is tolerable, but not nearly as fun as riding in fresh snow.
Timbersled: The Mountain Horse is the ultimate back country weapon. The deeper and steeper the terrain, the better it works. I tested the Timbersled on a Kawasaki KX450f. The KX is probably the best platform for a snowbike that I have ridden. The strong power and one kick starting make it a real joy to ride. Although by next year I expect that a fuel injected, electric start KTM 450sx-f will be the hottest ticket for a snowbike platform.
The Timbersled’s long track and angle of approach make it the clear front runner for powder riding. The track naturally climbs upward, so it is nearly impossible to get it stuck. It is insane how steep this thing will climb, even with a novice rider like myself at the helm.
The rear suspension system works very differently from the other brands. It provides and excellent sense of “float” on the snow. It always helps keep the track riding high on the snow. The downside is that the long track and fixed subframe do not do nearly as well in rougher packed conditions.
The long track tends to throw the bike off course in whoops, as the ski is into the next whoop well before the track clears the previous one. The flatter profile of the track also wants to make the bike rock side to side on rough surfaces.
For an inexperienced rider, at trip down a groomed trail is a hair raising experience on the Timbersled. The bike has to be tilted on one edge all the time and then the ski is very susceptible to catching in small ruts.
SnoXcycle: This is a totally different kind of animal. Honestly, I almost made the mistake of totally discounting it as a mere toy before taking it out for a ride. What I found, is that it a completely different kind of machine that has its own strengths.
With its narrow track system the SnoX is not the choice for tackling deep snow. But the track gives it a very narrow contact patch, just like a motorcycle tire. It rides almost exactly like a motorcycle.
Where the rear subframe and track are rather simple looking, the modification to the Simmons ski is a near stroke of genius. With the addition of the center carbide, the SnoX is the first snowbike that actually excels at riding on a hard pack surface. Something as basic as a groomed trail can be really fun to ride on.
I see this as opening up a whole new area of opportunities for snowbikes. Where the other models are aimed primarily at off track, back country travel, the SnoX is ideal for areas that have more groomed trail systems, or marginal snow conditions. With its lower cost and ease of installation it can be a great way to get more people involved in the sport.
I think what fascinated me the most about this trip was seeing the different types of development that are going on in the snowbike industry. It is not just one static design model. In fact it seems to me that we have yet to see the ultimate snowbike. There are clearly some combinations of ski, track and suspension elements that have not been tried yet.
Some of you may have noticed that we did not get the chance to include the Explorer snowbike in this test. You can see our previous Explorer test at: Link
For pure mountain riding the Timbersled stands out as being the best. But for as good as it is in its element, it is pretty challenging to ride in other conditions. The 2moto will bridge a larger variety of snow and riding conditions. For example in racing, its track and suspension system look to be the easiest to ride fast. Then there is the SnoX that shows a whole new realm of riding possibilities. If you have a field and six inches of regular snow, this bike can provide hours of entertainment.